‘Toy Story 4’ is Yet Another Animated Masterpiece from Pixar

Toy Story 4 movie poster

Did the world really need another “Toy Story” movie, especially after the third one wrapped everything up with a beautiful ribbon? Well, it turns out we did. The news of a “Toy Story 4” sounded like a cash grab, and it’s not like Pixar is lacking in money or funds even after the box office failure of “The Good Dinosaur.” But to my surprise, the fourth movie in this ever so popular franchise quickly proves there is indeed another highly entertaining adventure involving the group of toys led by Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Unlike other Pixar movies, “Toy Story 4” does not start off with an animated short, but this is because the opening sequence more or less serves as one. We go back several years before the previous sequel as we watch Woody (Tom Hanks) and the others work feverishly to save a remote-controlled car which is about to be washed away into the sewer. With the aid of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody drags the car away from certain destruction, but then things take a sharp left turn when Molly, Andy’s sister, suddenly takes Bo Peep away from the window and donates her to a man eager to share this doll with his own daughter. Woody tries to rescue Bo Peep, but she assures him it is time for her to be someone else’s toy. Still, the deeply heartbreaking moment from “Toy Story 2” in which Jessie (Joan Cusack) is discarded by her owner to the tune of a Sarah McLachlan song immediately quickly comes to mind as this scene proves to be almost as painful.

Moving ahead years later, these toys are now in the care of Bonnie, and we catch up with her when she is about to make a big transition in her life: start going to school. Her kindergarten orientation marks the first time she is separated from her parents and her toys, and she is understandably crippled by separation anxiety like any other kid would be. Woody, having been neglected by Bonnie recently, sneaks himself into her backpack and throws some craft materials onto her table, and with them she creates a new toy out of a spork whom she names Forky (voiced by Tony Hale). This toy quickly becomes her most beloved, and Woody encourages the other toys to make Forky feel welcome in his new environment.

Forky, however, experiences an existential crisis as he feels he was never meant to be someone’s toy, but instead destined for the nearest trash can. Sporks are meant to be used once and then thrown away, but Woody desperately tries to make Forky see how important he is to Bonnie’s well-being. Still, it’s hard to think of another character in animation or family entertainment other than Oscar the Grouch who has had such a passionate love affair with a trash can, or any trash receptacle for that matter.

The “Toy Story” movies all have the same kind of story as the toys, for one reason or another, become separated from their owner and do whatever they can to return to them before it’s too late. Still, each one deals with very intriguing questions about what it means to be a toy and of the importance they play in anyone’s life. What I love about these questions is how deeply they involve the viewer to where you are as caught as the characters as they stress over the right move to make. Either that, or watching these movies really messes with my anxiety.

As always, Pixar provides us with brilliantly animated images, and “Toy Story 4” is full of them throughout. Our gang of toys ends up at a carnival while Bonnie and her parents are on a road trip, and Woody ends up in antique store which is filled with one easter egg after another. Some I recognized like the soda bottle cap from “Up,” but a second viewing is definitely required as there are many more I have yet to discover in this sequel. Just when I thought Pixar could not wow me anymore than they already had, they do.

The big news in this sequel is Woody ends up running into Bo Peep again for the first time in years. She appears to revel in being a free toy after her latest owner gave her away, and now she spends her days with her sheep. Billy, Goat and Gruff, traveling in a remote-controlled skunk in sequences I want to believe were inspired by similar ones in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Woody reuniting with Bo Peep is a wonderful moment as those who have followed this franchise from the beginning know how affectionate these two toys were with one another, and we spend a good deal of this sequel’s running time wondering if these two can possibly stay together or suffer yet another sudden goodbye.

With any new “Toy Story” movie, there are always new characters to be found, and this was one has several. In the antique store, we meet a beautiful doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who looks friendly enough at first, but who quickly reveals herself to be a bit devious as she attempts to obtain Woody’s voice box for her own uses. There is also Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), friendly Canadian daredevil who suffers from low self-esteem as his owner ditched him when he could not perform the same stunt he performed on a television commercial. Oh the pitfalls of advertising,

But when it comes to my favorite new toys, they are Ducky and Bunny, a pair who resent playing second fiddle to Buzz Lightyear in a carnival game. They are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the comedic duo we all know and love as Key & Peele, and it is great fun to see them reunited here. These two toys come to aid our heroes, and their methods prove to be hilariously unorthodox as they are quick to attack others in a way they mistakenly believe will be ever so effective.

When “Toy Story 4” comes to its conclusion, I found myself choked up even more than I was with the climax of “Toy Story 3.” With the previous sequel, we saw the end of one era, and with this one has us witnessing the end of another. It’s a deeply emotional finale to where it’s impossible not to feel like you are on the verge of crying as these toys have now been with us for over 20 years. They are like family, and they are now taking another big step into the unknown.

Could there be a “Toy Story 5?” Well, this sequel reminds us of how anything is possible. But if this is to be the final one, it certainly ends things on a tremendously high note. All the voice actors are excellent as they each find the depth in their characters to where not a single one is unforgettable. Josh Cooley makes a tremendous feature film directorial debut with this sequel, Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton have given it an excellent screenplay, and the great Randy Newman provides us yet again with another great score and songs this franchise has thrived upon.

2019 has not been a great year for sequels thus far, but along with “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum,” “Toy Story 4” proves you at the very least need Keanu Reeves to make your sequel the least bit successful in an overcrowded market. Seriously, you cannot deny this fact after what this summer has given us so far.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘The Predator’ is This Franchise’s Best Installment Since the Original

The Predator movie poster version 3

Having Shane Black co-write and direct “The Predator” brings this franchise around full circle. Black appeared in John McTiernan’s “Predator” as Rich Hawkins, a member of the elite military rescue team led by Butch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he was the first of the group to get mercilessly slaughtered by the “ugly motherfucker.” Since then, Black has become a master screenwriter with “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” as well as a gifted director with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” and “Iron Man 3” on his resume. At the same time, the “Predator” franchise quickly became an unwieldy one as “Predator 2,” while it had its moments, suffered from too many clichés and stereotypical characters who were just asking to be killed. “Predators” was fun, but it didn’t quite jumpstart this series in the way its filmmakers intended it to. The less said about the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, the better.

With Black’s gift of turning various movie genres inside out through terrific dialogue and unforgettable characters, it feels like only he could helm this “Predator” installment. If this creature is going to continue to have a cinematic life, it needs a filmmaker willing to liven things up and twist things around in an effort to make this franchise vital again. Thanks to Black and co-writer Fred Dekker, “The Predator” is easily the best and most consistently entertaining installment since the 1987 original. While it may not have the same lethal menace of McTiernan’s sci-fi action classic, it certainly feels like a Shane Black movie, and that is more than enough.

“The Predator” begins as most “Predator” movies do, with something or someone falling from the sky onto a planet at alarming speed. As a spaceship makes its way to an inevitable crash landing on Earth, Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is aiming to take out drug dealers who have hostages. The spaceship crashing foils this mission, but Quinn comes into contact with the alien’s hardware and a device which makes him nearly invisible. Knowing certain members of the military, particularly agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), will do anything to keep this alien encounter under wraps, Quinn mails the hardware to his home where it is discovered by his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who, thanks to the form of autism he has, is able to activate it to where several predators are alerted, and from there it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

What struck me most about “The Predator” is how well-conceived its human characters are. While they may come across as your typical military movie characters, Black and Dekker invest them with pathos and a great deal of black humor. This is especially evident in the scene where Quinn is being interrogated by a military psychiatrist as it shows how he is quick to tell others they need to cut through the bullshit. Characters like Quinn know they are in over their heads to where they do not want others to lie outright to them. It has become far too easy to cast doubt on an individual than it is to believe one, and the military shows no mercy in doing the same to Quinn as they are quicker to put a bullet in his head instead of telling him, “Thank you for your service.”

Quinn gets thrown on a boss with a bunch of former soldiers who are on their way to the nearest loony bin as they are, at first glance, certifiably crazy. These fellow soldiers are played by Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. I really enjoyed how each actor made their character wonderfully unique in politically incorrect ways. Black and Dekker are not about to give us watered-down characters which would be easier for certain audience members to digest, and each actor clearly relishes the material they have been given. Their performances make these characters stand out in a way they would not in other sci-fi action movies, and that’s saying a lot.

Also starring in “The Predator” is the gorgeous Olivia Munn as Casey Brackett, a disgruntled scientist who is enlisted by the military to study the alien and its technology up close. Of course, once Casey learns more than the military would like, she becomes a target for assassination because, once again, people in power are eager for those they consider beneath them to remain silent, at times permanently so. But Munn makes Casey into anything other than an easy victim as she effectively intimidates these former military officers into making her a part of their team to take down this particular illegal alien. She is a blast to watch throughout, and I hope to see her again in a future sequel.

Holbrook left a strong impression on audiences in “Logan” as he made that movie’s antagonist more than the average bad guy, and he is perfectly cast here as an antihero who is not too different from Snake Plissken. In the real world, Quinn is not a guy you would be quick to hang out with on a regular basis, but Holbrook wastes no time in making you see he is the dude we need to save the day.

Tremblay, so good in “Room,” makes Rory into a unique movie child which I found very refreshing. Moreover, I admired how Tremblay was able to communicate so much while saying so little much of the time. But when he does get to speak, he is gifted with the uber clever dialogue of Shane Black. I also love how Rory is one of my favorite kind of kids in movies as he can see right through their parents’ bullshit to where he is very eager for them to cut the crap and tell him the truth. Furthermore, kudos to the filmmakers for making Rory’s form of autism something other than a disability. Certain things are only disabilities if you treat them as such.

I also got a big kick watching Sterling K. Brown as a military agent who is eager to exploit the predator’s technology before anyone else can. Unlike the character he plays on “This is Us,” here he portrays a man who is never quick to shed a tear, and this makes his performance all the more invigorating to take in.

“The Predator” does have its flaws as the narrative gets increasingly messy towards the movie’s furious conclusion, and certain action scenes are filmed frenetically in a Michael Bay-ish way to where it’s hard to make out all that is going on. Apparently, the last half of the movie had to be reshot as test audiences found it to be too dark. At least the filmmakers had the support of a major studio to do these reshoots. The same couldn’t be said for those working on the failed Stephen King adaptation “Cell” as that movie’s last half was far too dark for anyone to get a clear idea of what was ensuing.

It is important to note “The Predator” takes place after the events of “Predator” and “Predator 2,” but before those of “Predators.” Taking this into account, it is clear 20th Century Fox wants this installment to be the beginning of a trilogy as Hollywood is infinitely interested in franchises than they are in films not designed to have a follow up. Only time will tell if “The Predator” will get a sequel, but what I can tell you is I had a lot of fun watching it, and for my money it is the best “Predator” movie since the original. Even as I kept hoping Schwarzenegger’s character of Dutch would make an appearance (he does not), few things could keep me from enjoying this sequel to excellent effect. I had a blast watching it, and I hope you do too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Don’t Think Twice

Dont Think Twice poster

Don’t Think Twice” starts off with a black and white montage of improvisation groups at work onstage. The important thing to notice is how the actors work together as a group and accept the ideas given to them. It’s never about trying to be funnier than the other person because that just throws the whole dynamic off. You simply work together and let the scene you have created flow from one place to the next, and if you are lucky you will reach comedy nirvana for yourself and the audience. But there’s always that one rule you most follow the most during improv: don’t think. Thinking just screws you up.

This movie completely understands the improv dynamic, and it’s no surprise it was written and directed by an actor, writer and a comedian, Mike Birbiglia, who has been in groups like those before. Birbiglia plays Miles, the senior member of an improv group named The Commune which has long since gained a strong following in the New York area. All the group members care for each other very much like family and live in the same building together. As they continue to perform and develop their talents, they keep pursuing what they see as the comedy holy grail, a comedy variety show called “Weekend Live.” Clearly, this show is a not so subtle stand in for “Saturday Night Live” as it promises fame and fortune for all those lucky enough to be cast on it.

Then one day two of The Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), get called to audition for “Weekend Live,” and we know this is going to change everything for everybody no matter what happens. Jack ends up getting cast and his friends are happy for him, but once they see him on the show their excitement fades as they begin to wonder why they aren’t as successful as him. Another Commune member, Allison (Kate Micucci) wears a t-shirt that says “Friends Forever” on it, but you quickly get the feeling that this won’t be the case as the movie goes on.

All the characters in “Don’t Think Twice” are wonderfully realized by Birbiglia and the actors he has cast. There are no good or bad guys here, just a group of friends trying to support each other the best they can. It’s great that they have this support group as show business is always fiercely competitive, and what keeps them going is their love of acting and especially improv. Still, a number of roadblocks are put up in their general direction as the theatre they perform in gets sold, and they move into a more expensive venue they are unable to fill up. Also, their biggest fans are more eager to see Jack back in The Commune than to watch a Commune show without him.

I love everyone here is genuine in following their passion, and you see the price they pay for pursuing such elusive dreams. They work day jobs that are demeaning to say the least. Bill (Chris Gethard) in particular has a job at a local supermarket handing out food samples to customers who are typically quick to avoid him. He later remarks at how he had all the lead roles in his high school plays and now feels like his father looks at him as a loser. Like the others in the group he has no real interest in a desk job or any other 9 to 5 job, but the time is coming where he may have to question whether it is worth it to continue on the path he has chosen for himself.

It’s no surprise that everything “Don’t Think Twice” reaches a climax as feelings of bitterness and resentment come right up to the surface. Jack has gained a lot of fame in a short period of time, and he tries to help his friends out by passing their writing samples along to “Weekend Live’s” Lorne Michaels-like manager who instead urges him to write for himself. Miles feels he is owed a spot on “Weekend Live” and thinks he has been cheated out of what is rightfully his. Everyone else comes to see what they have sacrificed to be a part of The Commune, and now they wonder if it was worth the price. This makes the movie more intense as you know these people will eventually explode at one another, and you hope the damage isn’t too great that it can’t be repaired.

Now many other movies like this one would have ended on a note of bitterness to where enemies are made and friendships are forever destroyed, but Birbiglia doesn’t do that here. While failure is not an option for many starving artists, for others it is. Or perhaps they shouldn’t look at this as failure and instead as a chance to redirect their energies. This could have been an infinitely pessimistic movie, but Birbiglia manages to soften the blow in a way that feels honest and genuine. He shows us people who start to wonder if it is time to move on to something, but they never lose their love of improv. They all may not be able to make a living off of performing, but they don’t have to give up on it either.

My hat is off to the actors who have clearly been through the various ups and downs of an acting career and been involved with groups like these. Keegan Michael Key is terrific as the breakout cast member who struggles to exist in a high-pressure showbiz world that is not as welcoming as The Commune. Gillian Jacobs is also a standout as one who is so committed to her group that the thought of leaving it feels so wrong to her. Birbiglia is perfect as the improv teacher who occasionally sleeps with his students who eventually find him to be a 40-something weirdo, and the fact that he is actually 36 doesn’t seem to help matters. Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard also have their wonderful moments as the supporting players who are desperate to validate their worth in the eyes of others.

I apologize if I make “Don’t Think Twice” sound like a depressing picture because I certainly don’t mean to. It’s a movie as moving as it is funny, and some parts of it are very funny. It has a lot of hope in it even as it deals with the increasing odds against making it in show business and how New York real estate has gotten far too expensive for any artist of any kind to live there. It also shows how your love for your art and your friends is undying and always helps you through the toughest of times. It’s a heartfelt movie that is genuine in its emotions, and its lessons on improvisation are true and to the point.

Don’t think, just go and see “Don’t Think Twice.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.